Book review: Learning for Action (SSM)

I’ve just finished reading Learning for Action by Peter Checkland and John Poulter (2006).  The book is an introduction to Soft Systems Methodology, or SSM for short.  Now I’ve read the book I have an understanding of what SSM is, how it might be used and why it would be useful.  I’m not about to run out and do any SSM but I now know when I might find it useful.

The book is well written and short – always a positive feature, although a little on the expensive side.  It is intended more for students than the casual readers but this doesn’t get in the way.  I think I made the right choice by starting with this SSM book rather than any other.

So, why did I read it?  Two reasons really.  First I’ve been talking about “Systems thinking” with some people and was wondering “How do you do it?” so I wanted to know more.  SSM is itself a form of systems thinking.  Second, I’d come across references to SSM on several occasions in the past and always meant to go back and read up on it so this was my chance.

Normally I run a mile from anything that claims to be a Big-M Methodology but on this occasion I’m quite impressed.  I think this is because SSM is very self-aware and the authors know the dangers of Methodology.  The roots of SSM are in Systems Engineering and related fields like Operational Research, the authors respect these fields but it was through recognising the limits on these techniques that SSM came to be.

So, despite my fear of Methodology I think this methodology looks useful in helping people step outside their normal environment and consider that environment from outside.  As such SSM facilitates and triggers learning – hence the title of the book.  It turns out that SSM is also a form of Action Research which is also from where Appreciative Inquiry began.  Once you know this several things fall into place, for example, SSM does not addresses “problems” but “problematic situations.”

Having read this I hope to have the opportunity to get involved with an SSM exercise in the not too distant future.


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Business Patterns update

Back in July I took my latest work on Business Patterns – or Strategy Design Patterns for Technology Companies to give us a more descriptive title – to the EuroPLoP 2006 conference.  I got lots of good feedback on the work and I’ve finally had the time to finish updating the papers and post the revised versions on my website.

There are two papers:

I’ve now collected quite a few business patterns and added some theory to support them – all available on my website.

What I should do now is compile all these papers into one PDF for easy access – and to cut out some of the boiler plate duplication that ends up in each paper.  That would also help me with the administration of these papers, I’ve run out of titles so I’m introducing a numbering system!

I had thought EuroPLoP 2006 would mark an end to the development of this series.  Instead I’m thinking about a few more patterns for next year.  There has been a little external interest in these patterns this year so maybe things will start to move.


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Compare and contrast: Terminal 5 and Wembley Stadium

If you can get a copy of today’s FT do so, there is a full page on the Heathrow Terminal 5 project – you can read it online but you need a subscription.  I’ve written about T5 before, and in truth there is little new in the FT piece that hasn’t been reported elsewhere.  Still, it is good to have an update and know it is still on schedule to open at 4am on 30 March 2008.

The thing that makes T5 so interesting is the approach taken by BAA (the owners of Heathrow) to the project.  Rather than take the traditional construction approach of asking “Who can do this cheapest?”  and load the contract with penalty clauses for the sub-contractor BAA has taken the approach that it needs the terminal to open on time so it has assumed responsibility for the risk and is managing it with innovative contracts.

One of the consequences is that BAA has adopted a number of techniques from the Lean production world.  Consequently the project is on time, on schedule and has a superior safety record than most construction projects.

What is especially striking is when you look a few miles up the road: 20 minutes from my house in one direction and I can be at Heathrow in South West London;  20 minutes in a different direction and I’m at Wembley stadium in North West London.  This project is nothing short of a scheduling disaster.

The British football association (who owned the old Wembley and commissioned the new one) took the traditional approach.  They sub-contracted the whole project to an Australian company called Multiplex – who, I believe, have a reputation for suing people.  This project is over budget, late, getting later and drove Multiplex to the edge of bankruptcy.

Of course the FA are OK, they signed a fixed price deal so what does it matter to them?  Well, it does matter, they don’t have a stadium yet and it was a stadium they wanted not financial compensation.  Wembley has been plagued by missed milestones, strikes, sub contractor problems and everything else we’ve come to expect from big construction projects.

Some people, like the former Government Minister David Mellor, seem to think this is quite reasonable:

The former chairman of the government’s football task force, David Mellor, agreed, saying: “It’s late, but tell me a building project that isn’t late.  This is a major project, and I just think that the fact that it may be a few weeks late finishing, in the great order of things… doesn’t matter tuppence.” (BBC, 21 February 2006)

Well, Wembley is more than a few weeks late now.  Its currently about a year late and has yet to open.  I don’t know is David Mellor has commented on Wembley more recently, or if he is aware of T5 but I’d really like know if he stands by his comment.

So, why make this contrast in a blog that is normally about software?

As I said before, T5 is built on risk sharing and lean principles, that does matter.  Terminal 5 shows that large engineering projects can be undertaken using these techniques and that they work.  And more importantly it shows that these principles transfer from car building to other areas.


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Book review: Software Ecosystems

Software Ecosystem by Messerschmitt and Szyperski (2003) is a book that was recommended to me about a year ago, a book I bought about 9 months ago, and one I started reading about four months ago.  I’m sorry to say I’ve only made it as far page 77 and I’m putting it on the shelf.

The book is interesting, the book is useful, the book does offer some insights into the software industry, the business of software and how software effects our business.  Yes I have learned things from this book.  The trouble is, the insights and learning don’t come along fast enough.  I feel as though I should read this book, it talks about business, software and the business of software but it idn’t a gripping read.

That I feel this is probably as much of a comment on me than it is on the book.  I’ve been around the IT industry in professionally for 15 years now and I’ve already learned much of what the book has to say.  Unfortunately, I think that is probably true for most of people who have been around the industry for half the time I have.  Certainly, if you’ve spent a few years in ITC and spent some time studying or thinking about the business you won’t find much new in this book.

Which begs the question: who is this book for?

Certainly the book has an academic style, the research style, it doesn’t present new research or long literature reviews, and it isn’t overdosed with references in the way academic research usually is.  So, my first thought is that this is a book for people studying the ITC industry – and software in particular.  It could almost be a text book for a course.

Yet something about the book doesn’t seem aimed at students.  While thinking about the audience I looked at the back cover were one commentor suggests “Marketers, programmers, consultants and lawyers all…” while another says “required reading for any student of the computer industry”.  I think the reviewers are right.

This is a book for people who don’t really understand the software industry and want to.  For such people this is a good book for bridging the divide between the business world they know and the strange world of software.

So, if you are a student who has this book on a course list then read it – or at least dip into it, its probably too long to read in one semester.  If you are a lawyer or a marketer who find they need to work with software people and understand the industry then read it.  But if your have an IT background, and you think about your industry, then there are better books to read.